Brazil is a special place. I’ve only been to Rio de Janeiro, but even so I can say that with confidence.
Not knowing many folks in Brazil I went couchsurfing all the way, successfully finding a couch with Rodrigo, who lives in Copacabana, a famous beach community in the Zona Sul (South Zone) of Rio.
Having sent about a dozen CS requests I also met Juliana, who couldn’t host me but offered to pick me up from the airport so I wouldn’t get lost in Rio. Good thing because that would have been a certainty. Her and her friend Sebastio were waiting for me as I arrived in the terminal, after which we took three buses for almost two hours, finally arriving in Copacabana. I don’t know how the hell I would have made it without them, as the bus stops aren’t clearly marked and I’ve no idea where the buses are going anyway.
This is a cycle I’ve gotten used to. Arriving in a new and foreign city can be intimidating at first, especially if you don’t have a clear plan on where you’re going or what you’re doing. Having somewhat of a reputation (real or not) for violence and crime, Rio was certainly no exception, and leaving the airport at 10:00 PM with no map didn’t increase the comfort. Huge props to Juliana.
What I’ve learned? Hang in there. Just make it through your first 48 hours, get yourself a map, get oriented, figure things out, and after some time it’ll be just like home. No problemo.
I made it to Rodrigo’s and he is a great guy, born and raised Brazil but lived in the US for six years – two in high school and four in college. He speaks near-perfect English and is studying to become a foreign diplomat. Very intelligent and ambitious fellow.
I spent one night with Rodrigo and his roommate Taina, another really good guy. They gave me a key to their apartment and told me to come and go as I pleased.
My first day I went off exploring Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and eventually the Forte de Copacabana. Got a nice workout on the beach.
With another couchsurfer coming in however, I had to move to a the Misti Hostel just around the corner, an alright place but nothing too special. Good breakfast included.
The next few days I spent just going around Rio; Juliana met up with me again and took me around Lapa and Santa Teresa, while another day I did a very wet and rainy walking tour with a couchsurfing group, concluding with several nightcaps with the group in Lapa and an X-Tudo street cart cheeseburger.
On Saturday night Rodrigo and Taina invited me to a party at their flat, which was a freakin blast. All very educated people speaking excellent English, mostly in similar programs for diplomatic studies and international relations. Met some great people there.
After three nights at the Misti I met up with Davi, my next couchsurfing host. We met at the Largo do Mochado metro station, walked to his place to drop my pack, then proceeded directly to the Parque de Flamengo for a couchsurfing picnic I’d read about.
The picnic was cool but nothing remarkable. After a couple of hours though, the park started to liven up.
Musicians began to arrive. Early on they were split into groups: trumpets, tubas, and trombones, large single drums and the larger drum sets with shoulder harnesses. For perhaps an hour they played in their separate groups, warming, tuning and practicing.
After some time the groups joined together, in total perhaps 30 or 35 musicians. Within the circle the instruments remained in their groups, each with a leader, all facing inward. Spectators in the park began to circle around.
I’d heard something about Samba and the many practices that occur throughout Brazil leading up to the world famous Carnaval festival, which takes place annually in February. I read they’re pretty popular and have become a tourist attraction over the years, where you can now pay to have someone take you to an organized practice or whatever.
Fortunately I happened to be at the park at this time, although whoever organized the couchsurfing picnic surely knew about the practice and planned it as such.
The band began to play as onlookers and passers-by joined the eager crowd. What ensued was among the coolest of things I’ve experienced.
I’m no Picasso but I can recognize talented musicians. These guys were bad-ass. And spirited. Funny, I couldn’t help but think of Kennan Toregerson ripping it up alongside these Brazillians with his saxophone. You would’ve loved it, dude.
This wasn’t just a group playing songs. There were songs with breaks, during which the instrument groups huddled up and tuned while their group leaders coached and corrected. But the show was more than a collection of individual songs; it was a series of interrelated pieces, like waves hitting a beach one after another, an ocean of sounds flowing together. Like watching a movie, it started out, there were ups and downs, twists and turns and exciting moments all leading up to the climactic finale. A dramatic description perhaps, but it really was phenomenal. If you saw my fb status in Rio, “mind…blown,” this is what I was talking about.
Forgive me if I don’t possess the vocabulary or the musical expertise to describe the music itself; for that purpose I’ve included a few links where you can see and listen for yourself:
Well I just looked on YouTube for an hour and couldn’t find anything close. And I’m really bummed that I didn’t have my camera.
The intensity built as the show progressed, and soon the thing came alive.
I observed the trombone section as the “rougue” group, the Marketing department in the Craig School of Business if you will. They’re clearly a little different, zealous and rambunctious, often breaking the lines and confusing the structure. Physically walking through and mingling with the other sections, the mixing of bodies and instruments and sounds created some chaos and disorder. They were most aggressive, quite literally “in your face,” nearly punching spectators and fellow band members in the face with the outward slide thrust of their trombones.
As the intensity continued to build, the rest of the band became increasingly more lively and mobile, spontaneously erupting into motion, the entire group flowing one direction and then reversing course, sweeping up onlookers on the interior circle. I spied the most devilish fellow of the trombone section assaulting unsuspecting bystanders with raucous horn bursts at close range. It was almost boiling.
The malay soon evolved into a combat zone, with alliances drawn between horns and percussion. They began battling it out, the line of horns on the offensive charging forward and blaring into the faces of the drummers; but soon after with the horns retreating, the drum line rushes forward, bat-dat-dat-bat-da-da-da-dat!!, boldly charging in retaliation into the ranks of horns. This went on for some time, and even after the groups rejoined under the Treaty of Parque de Flamengo, tensions still stirred through the remainder of the performance, with the occasional rockets zinging across the lines.
The tempo had reached near hysteric as the finale approached. By some cue invisible to me the crowd began to huddle in tightly toward the center, around the band which had also tightened up. The crowd then began rotating around the band, dancing in circular unison, smiling and laughing. I was in the fray.
Faster and faster as the crowd churns around the center core, until the music begins slowing, slowing while growing softer, quieter, and finally barely audible as the band and crowd crouch to the ground. The volume begins to increase again as the circle reverses in the opposite direction, again spinning and accelerating until reaching a fever pitch as the last dramatic notes are struck in unison, all amid cheers and smiles and whistles and clapping and laughter.
After the grand finale many of the musicians packed up their instruments and took to socializing, even while many still remained playing in a smaller and smaller group until there were only a few remaining, but no less inspired. It was as if they just wanted to play and play.
So that was the samba practice.
During the “after-show,” with the small core of musicians still playing, I stood there with Davi still in relative awe from the inspiring performance.
“It’s about that time, where if you’re going to make a move, you’d better make it,” Davi told me.
Moments later he grabs the most beautiful woman in Brazil and proceeds to whisk her into a dancing frenzy.
As impressed as I was, Davi was retired moments later and came back to where I was standing. Telling him how awesome that was, he explained to me, “it wasn’t good enough. The standards are very high for Brazilians.” They’ll give you a chance, but just as quickly thank you for your time. More on dancing…
Two nights later Davi took me to a bar in Central for live Forro (a traditional Brazilian music, pronounced “fo-ho,” a seven-man band in this case which included a little guitar, accordion, tambourine and several other sound-producing instruments). This is a big deal.
Before going further I should make note that we, North-American men, are egregiously ill-equipped and ill-prepared for handling Latin women. If you don’t have some serious dance moves – and no I’m not talking about the classic go-to dick grind, I’m talking about legitimate, coordinated dance steps – you are going to be standing around. Or looking very bad trying to dance.
Dancing is a negotiation, Davi explained to me. It has two parts: the offer, this is what I want; and the show, this is what I can do. By asking a woman to dance you are communicating what you want, and your dance moves show her what you can do. It’s highly advisable that if you intend to enter any kind of formal negotiations with Latin women, and in particular Brazilians, that you are prepared to demonstrate moderate proficiency at a minimum.
The good news is that standards for gringos are much more lenient than for Brazilians, so if you can at least make a solid effort and lead a few coordinated steps, you’ll get the benefit of the doubt and some breathing room.
The Forro club was an experience. The whole process was just fascinating to observe. Of course I tried my hand a few times….and despite taking a few salsa classes back in Fresno pre-departure, things did not go too smoothly. Working up the courage to dance with a Brazilian woman, especially knowing I didn’t possess the skills, was, frankly, nerve-wracking. But one thing is for sure, you’re definitely not in the game if you’re standing on dick row. With my partners instantly recognizing the disparity, these efforts mostly consisted of Brazilian women slowly walking me through a few simple steps, me fumbling a few phrases in Portuguese and her soon politely thanking me for the “dance.” Humbling.
I’ve since resolved to really learn how to dance (Franco I hope you’re reading this); and sing and play for that matter, but topics for another day. Nonetheless it was quite a fun evening and a cultural experience the likes of which I’ve never seen. And there were some dudes in there who could seriously break it down. Impressive.
I climbed Pão de Açúcar and Corcovado, I walked the streets of Ipanema and the famous tile staircase of Lapa, journeyed up to the Parque de Ruinas in Santa Teresa, swam in the Atlantic Ocean at Copacabana, and traversed through the high rises of Central (I did not however make it into the favelas which I think was a big miscue); even so I only caught a fraction of Rio.
What can I say about it? Well, first of all, the people. In part attributed to a history rooted in slavery and colonization, Brazilians look like everyone and no one. From the darkest dark to the lightest light. They look Latin, European, African and American. I don’t think I’ve seen a nation (in this case only the one city I’ve seen) with people who look so different, and yet are the same.
They’re friendly and helpful. One woman saw me open my map in the tourist office; she promptly asked me where I was going, then insisted on walking me to a bicycle-rental shop a few blocks down. I asked another man on the street where the metro station was, after which he walked me all the way there. Juliana taking a bus to the airport, picking me up, taking me all the way to Copacabana and then her trip back home, a four-hour journey at least. And several other similar examples as well; the people were so friendly, helpful and welcoming.
The landscape: breathtaking. From Corcovado to Pão de Açúcar, Copacabana to Ipanema, Lapa to Santa Teresa, it’s among the most beautiful cities I’ve laid eyes upon.
A lot of locals asked me what I thought about Rio; after sharing my thoughts, most of them responded in similar fashion: Rio is the most amazing city in the world.
I can’t argue much. In all; I’ve never seen any place like it. Having been to a fair number of places now, I’ve seen a bit. But never anything like this. Perhaps it was because this was my first city in South America; or maybe Rio is in fact like no other place in the world. But it was a shock. Beautiful, alive, electric.
I said goodbyes to my new friends, Davi, Juliana, Rodrigo, Taina, Cassio and the others.
And that’s how it went down in Brazil.